'New World' Offers New Take on Pocahontas

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In the film The New World, writer-director Terrence Malick deals with the meeting of John Smith and Pocahontas. Though historians dismiss the idea that the two were romantically linked, the new film, like others before it, sticks with that version of the story.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Terrence Malick's latest film, "The New World," deals with one of America's most fascinating moments, the meeting between Pocahontas and John Smith. Though historians dismiss the idea that the two were romantically linked, the new film, like others before it, sticks with that version of the story, or possibly the legend. NPR's Kim Masters looks at what is known about the real Pocahontas.

KIM MASTERS reporting:

There is plenty of disagreement and very little source material on the true story of Pocahontas, but it is believed that in 1607, when she first encountered Englishman John Smith near the Jamestown settlement in Virginia, she was probably between 10 and 12 years old.

Professor CAMILLA TOWNSEND (Colgate University): She was, by all accounts, a remarkable child and a remarkable young woman, very good at languages, very bright, very witty, very winning.

MASTERS: Camilla Townsend is a professor at Colgate University and author of "Pocahontas and the Powhatan Dilemma."

Prof. TOWNSEND: What comes through in the writings of all of the colonists who knew her at all is that they liked her very much and that she was very smart.

Mr. DAVID PRICE (Author, "Love and Hate in Jamestown"): She was remembered as a very spirited girl. That's the word that you hear time and again, in the English sources at the time, someone who's very full of personality, very headstrong.

MASTERS: David Price is the author of the book, "Love and Hate in Jamestown." He says John Smith was 28, deeply pragmatic, a former mercenary. What happened when he met Pocahontas is unclear. The film depicts the defining incident in which Pocahontas appears to save Smith from being bludgeoned by her tribesmen.

(Soundbite of "The New World")

Mr. COLIN FARRELL: (As John Smith) At the moment I was to die, she threw herself upon me.

MASTERS: Townsend doubts that incident ever happened, noting that Smith didn't mention it at the time.

Prof. TOWNSEND: He wrote a report almost immediately and sent that report back to England. Never said a thing about the Indians having attempted to kill him, or Pocahontas having saved him. In fact, on the contrary, he said they, quote, "used me with what kindness they could."

MASTERS: Years later, after Pocahontas had died, Smith introduced the tale of the near-death experience.

Prof. TOWNSEND: In that same decade, in the 1920s, John Smith wrote several narratives in which he claimed that women in all sorts of parts of the world that he had visited had thrown their youthful naked bodies across his in order to save his life.

MASTERS: Some historians think Smith didn't fabricate the incident, but he may have misinterpreted a ritual as a death threat. Price gives Smith the benefit of the doubt.

Mr. PRICE: I believe he was telling the truth. I believe he was stating the facts as he understood them, but we'll never know.

MASTERS: Price says the notion of a romance between Smith and Pocahontas didn't arise in the popular imagination until the early 19th century, about 200 years after the encounter took place. But he does think that Smith and Pocahontas were friends.

Mr. PRICE: His phrase book, which he wrote in the very early years before she had achieved the fame that she later did includes that the Powhatan translation for the phrase, `Ask Pocahontas to bring me some beads and I'll make her a chain,' suggests sort of an avuncular easiness between him and her.

MASTERS: But "The New World," moody and impressionistic, portrays Pocahontas falling in love over English lessons.

(Soundbite of "The New World")

Ms. Q'ORIANKA KILCHER: (As Pocahontas) (Native American language spoken)

Mr. FARRELL: (As Smith) Sky.

Ms. KILCHER: (As Pocahontas) Sky. (Native American language spoken)

Mr. FARRELL: (As Smith) Sun.

Ms. KILCHER: (As Pocahontas) Sun.

MASTERS: Producer Sarah Green says she researched the real story, and the film doesn't try to stick with the facts.

Ms. SARAH GREEN (Producer, "The New World"): If the legend hadn't lasted as powerfully as it has, I don't think we'd have gone there. But that legend has lasted, and it's very resonant, and like the great legendary love affairs, it has a power of its own.

MASTERS: In reality, it seems that Pocahontas was married or engaged to a warrior named Kokoum, who appears in the 1995 Disney animated film as an unsuccessful suitor. What really happened to Kokoum is not known, but he's absent from "The New World." The film portrays Pocahontas as so besotted with Smith that she betrays her people by warning the English of an upcoming attack. The authors differ on whether that happened, but they concur that the English eventually kidnapped the teen-age Pocahontas in 1613. She was pressed to convert to Christianity when she married John Rolfe the following year. Camilla Townsend believes the union was blessed by her father.

Prof. TOWNSEND: And she went into the marriage, as many young Indian women did, being willing to marry with the enemy in order to try to make peace.

MASTERS: In the film, Pocahontas yearns for Smith even after her marriage. But Rolfe wins her over with unwavering devotion. Townsend thinks Rolfe's writings do reveal that he was in love with Pocahontas, and she thinks their regard may have been mutual. Producer Sarah Green says that's the real subject of "The New World."

Ms. GREEN: Going with that mythic love story, one of the themes that we explore is the difference between that first impetuous, romantic, passionate love in which you can move mountains but you may not see the consequences, with the later love that she finds that is slower, steadier and more selfless.

MASTERS: Under the name of Rebecca, Pocahontas traveled to England as a goodwill ambassador for Rolfe's tobacco company. In the film, the English treat her with great kindness. Townsend says that rings true.

Prof. TOWNSEND: She was wined and dined and made much of. In that sense, the English were very good to her. But of course, they had their reasons.

MASTERS: Eventually, Townsend says, Pocahontas was ready to go home. Instead, she fell ill and died. She was only about 20 years old. Her legend has far outlived her, and Townsend says that's because it serves a purpose.

Prof. TOWNSEND: We still as a country exhibit the same need that the colonists, that John Smith exhibited, when they wrote the original story. We as a country have loved the idea that Pocahontas loved us. It's a much more appealing story on that level than the truth, which was that she was desperately trying to save her own people, that they were in an awful situation and were beginning to realize how awful during the course of her life.

MASTERS: A more appealing story, perhaps, but to Townsend a version closer to reality is just as interesting, if only someone would make a movie out of it.

Kim Masters, NPR News, Los Angeles.

MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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